The journey taken by Green Gartside and his band Scritti Politti over the last five decades has been quite a remarkable one. From a genuine, bona fide squat-dwelling political post-punk anarchist at the tail end of the ’70s, through mainstream, chart-endorsed, Top Of The Pops-conquering pop success in the mid ’80s, their story has been one of the more surprising rags-to-riches tales of its day.
The band were originally conceived as an “anonymous collective”, of which Gartside, along with Tom Morley (drums) and Niall Jinks (bass) was simply one, among a whole clan of “non-musical members”: friends and associates who frequented the chaotic London squat where they were based. Their debut single was self-released in 1978 with some financial help from Rough Trade, its title and sleeve providing a good indication of the band’s values and ideals. ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ referenced both Gramsci (a key political and philosophical influence of Gartside at this stage, the band name too having been taken from a corruption of one of his book’s titles), and the most radical of Italian cities, while on the cover the band had listed and itemised all the costs incurred in its recording and production, alongside the companies that they’d used, in an expository aid to the DIY ethic.
Musically it is one of the most interesting tracks on this career retrospective compilation. The minor-key melody, unsure of itself and slightly troubled, the “skanking” rhythm and the esoteric lyrics combine to beguile and draw the listener in, as much as to “radicalise” them. It’s a shame that more of the band’s work from this time hasn’t been included but it is easy to see why – with so much pop gold to choose from in Scritti Politti’s Mark Two (re)incarnation.
Suffering an early-’80s crisis of faith, Gartside rejected the sterner, less forgiving tenets of the Marxist/anarchist philosophy that had governed the band thus far. A combined interest in Jacques Derrida’s theories of “deconstruction” and black American contemporary music (Michael Jackson‘s Off The Wall, Stax artists, Aretha Franklin) resulted in the band’s first great pop hit The “Sweetest Girl” (1982). Here we find much of what was always best about the band: the superficial wide-eyed-romanticism, the slightly reggae-flecked jauntiness (Gartside described it as a “perversion and extension of lover’s rock”), Green’s breathy, androgynous vocals and the underlying fiercely intelligent unpicking of the tropes of a standard love song (whilst still, of course, presenting a standard love song). By 1985′s huge-selling, chart-slaying Cupid & Psyche ’85 album, it was a device that they had perfected. Having now jettisoned Morley and Jinks, and indie label Rough Trade, it was full-throttle towards pop stardom with Virgin Records. New Yorkers David Gamson (keyboards) and Fred Maher (drums) were recruited, and contributed significantly to the slick US-influenced electro-funk of this album’s sound.
Quite reasonably, the compilation features five tracks from the album, all now sounding undeniably of-their-time. The sheen and gloss of the mid-’80s production ought not to mislead, though. Wood Beez’s oblique, Aretha Franklin-referencing declaration of desire is, when examined, both lyrically smart and dextrous and also in places disturbing: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t take / Oh, even intravenous”, they plead at one point, while a little later singing of “the gift of schizo”. The Word “Girl”, meanwhile, is another clever, deconstructed, self-analysing take on the construction of a love song: written when Gartside noticed how often the word was used in his and others’ lyrics. Notice again the hyper-aware quote marks as used in their first hit from 1982.
Of the five Cupid… era tracks included, perhaps the least familiar will be Hypnotize. Although released as a single, it failed to make much impact in the UK or US charts: a shame, as its slightly harder-edge and interesting way of playing fast-and-loose with melody and rhythm make it one of the most textured and enjoyable inclusions on this album – as it was on Cupid… back in the ’80s.
Despite its Miles Davis trumpet solo (Miles Davis!), 1988′s Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy) has always sounded a little like an outtake from Cupid…, the croon and twinkle starting to seem slightly cheesy and last-slow-dance-at-the-teenage-disco. After 1988′s Provision – represented here by Oh Patti and Boom! There She Was – the band went AWOL (bar the Shabba Ranks collaboration on The Beatles cover She’s A Woman from 1991) until they re-emerged with a whole new rap and urban-influenced sound eleven years later. 1999′s Anomie and Bonhome was a surprising reinvention, and one that was only partially successful. The album mixed New York hip-hop – on tracks like Tinseltown To The Boogiedown (featuring Mos Def) with the slick, smooth R&B of before, and even saw some positively theatrical moments on the syrupy Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder. Here was evidence that Gartside was still thinking, still questing, still collaborating and searching for the best way to fuse his pop sensibilities with his intellectuality.
It is strange that this compilation has chosen to include nothing from the favourably-received 2006 album White Bread, Black Beer, particularly considering its Mercury Prize nomination. This, and the absence of any representation from its predecessor Early (2005), slightly give the lie to claims for this collection’s being any kind of authoritative career retrospective for the band. It would also have been nice to have heard more of the early work: something from a late ’70s Peel Session, perhaps?
Fans may be slightly mollified, however, by the two new tracks that have been included, at the album’s end, Day Late And A Dollar Short, and A Place We Both Belong. Representing the first collaborations with Gamson since 1999, both are as subtle, insidious, yet as instantly identifiable as the work of this band as anything that precedes them on the album. Fiercely clever, bright, demanding yet also simply wonderfully easy on the ear, the story of Scritti Politti – pretty much the story of Green Gartside – that is told on this compilation is definitely worth hearing.
Scritti Politti’s career-spanning collection Absolute is out through EMI on 28th February 2011.